History of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese

The history of formal Catholic education in the Archdiocese of St. Louis dates back to 1818. Bishop Louis DuBourg of the Louisiana Territory established a seminary in Perryville and the first Catholic school in St. Louis. He invited the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the Vincentians, and the Jesuits to become a part of this community. Among those who came were Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, Father Joseph Rosati, and Father Pierre DeSmet, combining their missionary work with education. It would be another twenty years before public education was established, and not until 1853 when the first public high school west of the Mississippi opened in St. Louis.

As the first St. Louis bishop, Joseph Rosati continued to build the foundation of Catholic education. He asked Mother Duchesne to move her school from Florissant to St. Louis. At his request, the Jesuits took over St. Louis College, which received a university charter in 1832. Sisters of St. Joseph came from France in 1837. They began their mission of teaching deaf children and opened a school for girls in Carondelet. Sisters of the Visitation established an academy in 1844. Five years later, Christian Brothers arrived to teach in elementary, secondary, and college schools. School Sisters of Notre Dame opened a number of parish schools, especially in the growing German-American communities.

In the decades to follow, many other orders of religious men and women found their way to St. Louis, establishing their own schools and teaching in parish schools. Seventy-five years after Bishop DuBourg opened the first school, Catholic education was well-established in the St. Louis community. There was a college and university, three high schools for boys and six academies for girls, and more than three dozen parish elementary schools.

Archbishop John J. Glennon became the spiritual leader of St. Louis in 1903. At his direction, Kenrick Seminary was opened and the Office of the Superintendent was established. In 1911, the Reverend Aloysius Garthoeffner, the first Superintendent of Archdiocesan Schools, announced the creation of three free high schools. Beginning as two centers to educate girls, Rosati and Kain were consolidated the following year, and remains as the oldest Archdiocesan high school.

Despite a long history of educating African-American children, like the rest of the country, Catholic schools of St. Louis were racially segregated. In 1947, the newly appointed archbishop, Joseph Ritter, took the dramatic step of integrating the more than two hundred elementary and secondary schools of the Archdiocese. That same year, he established the Catholic School Office as an agency of the Archdiocese and charged it with providing leadership and service to the archdiocesan high schools and the parish elementary schools.

In the decades following World War II, the Archdiocese experienced the strains of a largely urban Catholic population moving to the edges of the city and the suburbs beyond. Steps were taken to insure that the Church would continue to serve St. Louis Catholics. As housing developments took shape, a massive organizational and financial effort was undertaken to create new parishes and build dozens of new elementary schools. A number of new Archdiocesan high schools were opened, and several schools operated by religious orders relocated to St. Louis County. Continuing population shifts present new challenges of bringing educational resources and services to the Catholic community.

When the Reverend John Leibrecht was appointed Superintendent of Schools in 1972, the scope of the Catholic School Office was broadened to include all aspects of religious education from preschool to adult. To reflect this broadened mission of total Catholic education, in 1981 the name was changed to the Catholic Education Office. The focus on Catholic schools was expanded to responsibility for providing leadership and service to Catholic education programs in all forms. The Catholic Education Office continues to see its responsibilities increased, its audiences enlarged, and the emerging needs of its constituents and programs magnified.

Bishops DuBourg and Rosati would likely be awestruck by what their modest efforts have become. Today, Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of St. Louis constitute the largest school system in the state of Missouri. Approximately 27,000 students are enrolled in 112 elementary schools and nearly 11,300 students attend 27 Catholic high schools. The Archdiocese of St. Louis enrolls in its schools a larger percentage of Catholic children than any other diocese in the country. In addition, almost 16,300 young people participate in Parish School of Religion programs and 6,000 adults take part in parish faith formation programs. Supported by the Catholic Education Office and the vision of its superintendents, the Archdiocese has come to be viewed as a leader in the ministry of education in the United States.